By Nick Mulvenney
SYDNEY (Reuters) – The Canterbury Crusaders made a statement with a dramatic 34-28 win over the Auckland Blues at Eden Park but it was the Waikato Chiefs and ACT Brumbies who continued to make the running in round four of Super Rugby Pacific.
The often slow-starting Crusaders had lost two of their first three matches of the season, including a stunning upset at the hands of Fijian Drua last week, but hit their considerable stride in Saturday’s re-match of last year’s final.
Leicester Fainga’anuku scored a hat-trick of tries for the reigning champions but it was a ferocious defensive effort led by lock Sam Whitelock that proved the difference in a thriller played in front of a crowd of 24,000.
The Blues were twice held up over the line late in the game and Whitelock capped a superb performance with a turnover to deny the home team another shot at a try to win the game.
“It was a game for us to make a statement,” said left winger Fainga’anuku, who played with a rib injury.
“We lost to the Chiefs and the Drua loss was a cop to the chin of a few of the fellows. It was a game to really show our DNA, to show what Crusaders footy is all about.”
The Chiefs kept their 100% record with a 44-25 win over the Melbourne Rebels in Hamilton in Saturday’s early game with in-form fullback Shaun Stevenson scoring two of the home side’s six tries and setting up another.
Another bonus point kept them two points clear at the top of the standings ahead of the Brumbies, who also made it four wins out of four with a 62-36 victory over Moana Pasifika in Canberra.
The winless Moana gave as good as they got for the first hour of the contest but the high-octane Brumbies backline exploded with four tries in the last quarter to blow out the score.
“We’ve made a good start to this competition but there’s still a lot of work to do so we’re not getting ahead of ourselves,” said Brumbies coach Stephen Larkham, who will take his team to Christchurch to face the Crusaders on Friday.
The Wellington Hurricanes moved up to third in the standings, three points behind the Brumbies, with a 34-17 win over the New South Wales Waratahs in the New Zealand capital on Friday.
The Drua were unable to back up last week’s famous win in Lautoka and went down 27-24 to the Queensland Reds in Brisbane in the final match of the round.
In Sunday’s earlier game, the Otago Highlanders got their first points of the campaign with a 43-35 victory over Western Force in Invercargill.
(Reporting by Nick Mulvenney, Editing by Jacqueline Wong)